Loggers plan giant GM trees

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The Independent Online
FORESTS OF giant genetically engineered trees are being planned in a development which ecologists fear will threaten entire ecosystems.

Pulp and paper companies have teamed up with the world's leading biotechnology firms to alter trees genetically to make them grow faster, pulp more easily and give them resistance to pests.

But the drive to create "designer trees" has caused alarm among environmentalists who fear that it could cause irreparable damage to the plants, insects and animals that rely on trees to survive.

They say that if logging companies create "custom-made" trees the world's forests could be disrupted, along with the complex ecosystems they sustain.

They also fear that new GM traits - such as herbicide resistance - will be spread to natural trees, creating hybrids. In a nightmarish vision of the future, they warn that trees engineered to grow faster could cross- breed with their ordinary relatives, creating enormous trees which block out the sun, suck up huge amounts of water and damage houses with their giant roots.

Several patents on genetically modifying the structure of trees have recently been filed and multi-million dollar joint ventures are already being forged between logging companies and agro-chemical firms.

Last month, Monsanto signed a $60m joint venture with International Paper, Westvaco Corporation and Fletcher Challenge Forests to genetically engineer faster-growing trees with improved fibre quality.

In Britain, the first test site of genetically engineered poplar trees has been planted near Bracknell, Berkshire, by biotechnology company Zeneca.

The EU-funded experiment is designed to create a species which can produce cleaner paper. All the GM trees are female so they cannot breed with neighbouring species.

But environmentalists fear that, because trees take up to 100 years to mature, it will be impossible to conduct proper tests to predict any effects on the environment.

The Forestry Commission, the Government's ruling body on UK woodland, has been experimenting with engineering the genes in Sitka spruce to make the pine resistant to pests and diseases. But the Commission has warned that GM organisms should not be used in forestry in the UK until they have been properly tested.